The Water “Emergency” We All Saw Coming

The City of Port Orford has declared an emergency regarding the Hubbard Creek impoundment for our water. Special city council sessions were held virtually on Friday, August 27, and Tuesday, August 31. With a bare 24 hours notice of Friday’s meeting, few if any citizens were alerted to attend. Requests for a link to the meeting have been ignored. What we do know is that it was the setup for the ban on “nonessential” water use enacted at Tuesday’s meeting. See the details here:

The council did not allow any public questioning, comment, or other participation at these meetings – notwithstanding the fact that most citizens are city water ratepayers and have not been given any explanation of how the situation has been allowed to get this bad. Lack of dredging in the impoundment was cited, which in turn has been blamed on the Army Corps of Engineers and various regulatory agencies.

We suspect that declaring an emergency is a ploy designed as part of an appeal for aid directed to the entities named: the county, the state, and (yes!) even the President of the United States. And the so-called ban is to indicate that PO is doing its job. (Actually, one of the restrictions makes a lot of sense, and it should have been instituted long before now – no new water hookups!)

Why haven’t we gotten reports on this VITAL aspect of municipal responsibility all along? What actions have been taken? What are the various water sources “in and around the city of Port Orford” that are being looked into? What will the costs be for that, and who will pay? And how could any usage ban be expected to work, given that no oversight, no enforcement, and no penalties will be involved? If it’s simply an honor system, why enact a resolution at all? Just put out a post on Facebook.

In fact, one councilor jumped the gun by posting on Facebook about the coming action. This is how citizens first learned what was up. There are few who don’t want to do their part to ease the coming hardship. But some of us want to know more and are not content with the “because I say so” attitude of the city. We’re in that group.

On Tuesday, there was no discussion of either the emergency declaration or the ban on nonessential water use before the votes were taken. The ban is set to expire on November 1; it could be lifted earlier if conditions change. That is, if we get rain or if the situation at the Hubbard Creek impoundment improves. So to recap: No official explanation, staff report, or justification was given to the public and the water ratepayers for these votes.

Those who stuck around in the virtual meeting after the voting were able to get a little insight into what’s been going on. Councilors, the new administrator, and the public works director chatted for some time about their recent activities. But since the public did not have the benefit of the various reports or meetings with contractors being discussed, it was more of a puzzle than not. But here a few highlights that we were able to glean:

Number one problem: The impoundment dam is rotted. There is a temporary liner in the impoundment that allows some water to be captured from Hubbard Creek. The administrator and public works director have met with engineers (or others? some free professional advisors?). The holes in the dam were plugged with dirt, allowing some water gain.

The impoundment is silting up, limiting the holding capacity. One councilor opined that probably two-thirds has been lost. Dredging has not been done for eight or nine years, with the exception of last year, said another councilor. And no one seemed to know how or when the amount of siltation allowed by the Army Corps of Engineers to be removed was reduced from 2,000 yards to only 25 yards. (And we are told that recent applications for a dredging permit have not been successful.)

Second biggest emergency: The pump at the tank on Coast Guard Hill is vibrating and leaking; it is about to go and can’t be rebuilt. There is an immediate repair that can be done to keep up pressure, but a new pump is needed and major changes to the pumphouse for a new skid.

Leaks. There have been nine leaks on city pipelines in the last week and a half, said the public works guy. With a full crew only three days a week, just about the only thing they are doing now is fixing leaks that spring up. Of course this water loss is exacerbating the impoundment insufficiecy. The city has been told that our usual monthly water loss of up to 50 percent is far higher than the 15 percent that would be acceptable in a municipal system.

In short, the longtime deferred maintenance on Port Orford’s water infrastructure has now resulted in a cascade of dire problems. It remains to be seen just what the remedies will be. It is clear that they will be neither swift, nor cheap. Oh, and it was suggested that a new water rate study is needed. That means we can look forward to paying more in the future. Let’s hope we get a fair return on that money – not just more band-aids on the gaping wounds.